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Blog: WHS #689: Cave of Pont d'Arc

After the extensive review of the Cave of Pont D’Arc by Solivagant 2 months ago, I was afraid that there would be nothing left for me to write about! But I was happy to finally tick it off, as I had a painful 'near miss' last year. This time I first drove to the Cirque d’Estre where the real cave is located. At least I made it into the buffer zone (looking at the map, I suspect that the core zone starts behind the vineyards at the ridge?). Signs were all over the place to warn about wild boar hunters so I did not proceed beyond having a quick look at the Cirque and the Pont d’Arc opposite. I’ll continue this review with my experience of visiting the replica cave in late November.

Various options at the Caverne de Pont d'Arc

I bought the ticket online about a month before, but there were still tickets left on the day. I was on the first tour of Sunday morning, at 11 am. They warn you to be there at least half an hour before – that’s because the tours do not start at the visitor entrance but at the ‘Caverne’ across the park. Not until 10.15 other cars started to appear at the parking lot and the entrance remained closed until 10.30. There were 15 other people on my tour, all French. The tour was conducted in French only and the guide skipped handing out the audio guides because of the small group size (a nice gentleman who had overheard at the ticket counter that I am Dutch enquired whether that would be OK for me, but it was).

It was a foggy morning and pretty chilly outside. Fortunately they do heat the ‘cave’ a bit – it is kept at 16 degrees Celsius (the original is colder at 13 degrees if I understood well). When you have seen the Werner Herzog movie about the original cave, you’ll notice right away that the replica has been made much more accessible. You do not have to crawl through narrow passages: a wide, flat path circles the cave rock formations with rock art.

Reproduction of drawing of moving cave lions

In the beginning I only noticed its 'fake' aspects - the walls are made of concrete & the rocks of plastic - but gradually the appreciation for the rock drawings started to dominate. Those drawings have been precisely recreated, using the same materials. That is apparently also the reason that you cannot even take photos in this replica cave.

We stopped at about 10 clusters of drawings, with the guide explaining them extensively. She often asked us what animal we thought we recognized. At a large scene she even let us sit on the floor for 20 minutes to tell in detail about the way in which the artists depicted movement. The designers of the replica cave have also done a lot with light effects, such as mimicking the light of flares (the only lighting that prehistoric people had). The total tour lasted 75 minutes, a quarter of an hour longer than in the high season when the groups quickly succeed each other.

After the tour I had some coffee at the cafeteria (there’s a restaurant also). Then I made my way to the ‘Aurignacian Gallery’, which effectively is the site museum. It should not be missed: it is actually advisable to view this museum before you visit the cave itself. It starts with a short video in a cinema room where you are temporarily 'locked up'. After the video, the doors open and you can go and see the exhibition.

The museum shows lifelike interpretations of the animals depicted on the drawings. The cave bear and the cave lion for example, but also mammoths and giant deer. It also shows the many different techniques with which the drawings were made. Apparently there are so many Dutch tourists in this region that all information in the museum besides French, English and German is also written in Dutch!

A representation of a cave lion in the museum

In all, I spent some 3.5 hours at the replica cave and at the view point near Pont d’Arc. They are located in a very nice area of the Ardeche and the drive up there I found already worthwhile. I found the replica well done (much better than I remember from Altamira for example), but it still remains unsatisfactory that you cannot see the real thing.

Published 8 December 2018

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Blog: Roman heritage of Nîmes

My visit to the TWHS of Nîmes seemed like such a simple plan: fly to Marseille and then drive there in an hour. In Nîmes I then would have an afternoon to see the Roman monuments. But reaching the city this particular last Saturday was hindered by people in 'yellow vests', protesting against the high fuel prices and other issues. All access roads but one had been blocked, so with a huge U-turn (which cost me over an hour extra) I had to enter the city from the north. Even there it was a slow affair. Fortunately all protests that I came across in the south of France went peacefully; I got a free passage twice on the toll roads and a banana in return for the discomfort.

Stele of Licinia Flavilla and Sextus Adgennius Macrinus at the museum

In Nîmes itself, the Musée de la Romanité was my first destination. This is a grand Roman museum that has opened this summer to reinforce the WH candidacy. For 17 EUR I got a combi-ticket that also gave access to the 3 most important Roman monuments of the city: the amphitheatre, the Magne tower and the Maison Carrée.

The museum interior is modern and light. Nice to walk through, but the collection itself I found not that special. Nîmes seems to feel the need to measure itself with the neighbouring cities of Orange and Arles, which are already WHS because of their Roman history. However, ‘Nemausus’ was only one of the many colonies founded by the Romans in foreign lands, in this case an area inhabited by Gauls. The question where it distinguished itself from the others remains unanswered at the museum as well.

The museum can even become an obstacle for WH inscription: ICOMOS found that the visual integrity of the amphitheatre is spoiled by Musee de Romanité. That may be a bit harsh, but it is remarkable how close the two are to each other. The museum has a panoramic terrace which actually is too close and too low to have a good view of the amphitheatre.

Bullfighter statue in front of amphitheatre

The oval amphitheatre nowadays is mainly used for bullfights. In Roman times it was a gladiator arena, something that is still remembered by cardboard information panels and a single tiny exhibition room. It mostly reminded me of an outdated football stadium, with many entries and chilly passageways.

The most beautiful building in the city center undoubtedly is the Maison Carrée , a perfect Roman temple. You can go inside - it has been transformed into a cinema. Every half hour a film about the Roman history of the city is shown. The main characters of this story are Licinia Flavilla and Sextus Adgennius Macrinus: the two whose heads adorn the most beautiful tomb in the museum (see photo 1 above).

Finally I walked on to the Gardens of the Fountain. In a corner of this park, one of the first French city parks, lies another Roman monument: the Temple of Diana. This was probably not a temple at all (a library perhaps?), and certainly not dedicated to the goddess Diana. What now remains is a ruin in a fragile state, partly flooded with water.

Ruins of Temple of Diana

The decision to add the Historic Urban Ensemble of Nîmes to the World Heritage List was deferred earlier this year. ICOMOS doubted whether Nîmes is “sufficiently distinguishable from other cities with similar Roman roots” – or at least did not see it proven in the comparative analysis. But it recommended to focus on that Roman heritage angle anyway for a future renomination, as a wider scope including Renaissance, Neoclassical and modern structures would have even less chance of success. I found Nîmes unmistakably French, with grand squares and classicist buildings: pretty pleasant but also nothing special. The amphitheatre and Maison Carrée may be excellent preserved monuments from Roman times, but they did not move me in any way: they are too much connected to mediocre tourist traps.

Published 1 December 2018

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Blog: Raoudha Nilometer

The Raoudha nilometer in Cairo has been part of Egypt’s Tentative list since 2003. I have no idea whether the country has plans for ever nominating it, but it is an easy and worthwhile addition to any city trip of Cairo. Nilometers were used since Pharaonic times to measure the Nile River's water level during the annual flood season. On my previous trip to Egypt, I already had visited 3 of them: in Edfu, Kom Ombo and Aswan respectively. This one in Cairo however is much more elaborate and decorated. It dates back to the 8th century and was renovated a few times after.

Looking down..

After I spent 2 hours in Coptic Cairo, I left the touristy area behind me. At the other side of the Mar Girgis metro station, at the other side of the Nile even on Rhoda island, lies this Nilometer. I had to do some typical Cairene city walking to get there: from the street with the Coptic churches, I passed the military roadblock guarding the entrance, crossed the railway tracks via a walkway (with a typical dumping ground at the bottom of the walkway), walked through a shabby but still cosy neighbourhood with dilapidated high-rise buildings and then had to cross a very busy road. Fortunately there is also a bridge over the road, although I was the only one using it – the locals just crossed the road between the cars.

I ended up on the banks of the Nile, at a footbridge. At the other side of the bridge some boys were playing football and they asked me "Are you going to the Oum Kalthoum Museum?". I said yes, because on the grounds of that museum (dedicated to an Egyptian singer) lies my goal: the Nilometer. At the museum entrance the guards immediately knew that I came for the Nilometer and not for the singer. They pointed me to a woman on a garden chair selling tickets for 20 Egyptian pound (EUR 1.25). A man with the key was then called to bring me to the building with the measuring station.

The measuring instrument

At the tip of the island, in a corner of the museum garden, lies a small conical building. After entering, what you see is a 13 meter deep pit with an octagonal column with markings in the center. The water used to flow in here via channels from the Nile. By going down a stone spiral staircase you can reach the bottom of the pit (the channels have been closed since long, so the interior is devoid of water). The pit’s walls are decorated with arches and ribbons. There are even Arabic texts on the walls, apparently the oldest that are left in Egypt.

If you look up from the bottom, you can see a magnificent dome that has been placed over it in Ottoman times. The marker was divided into 19 ‘cubits’ (half-meters), an ideal water level would be 16 cubits but 18 would mean floodings and 12 hunger (well-explained here). Overall, I found it a really fascinating instrument and it is also in excellent condition.

Looking up..

In its description, Egypt markets this site as a “masterpiece from Islamic architecture”. But I rather would like to see it inscribed together with the older Nilometers across the country – as this is a typical Egyptian cultural product. There are lots of interesting stories attached to them, such as priests that used the ‘mysterious’ instrument to predict the future for the farmers. It was also an important instrument for determining the taxes.

Published 24 November 2018

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Blog: WHS #688: Wadi al-Hitan

Wadi Al-Hitan (the Whale Valley) is “the most significant site in the world to demonstrate the evolution of whales”. The valley lies 190km south of Cairo in Egypt’s Al Fayoum area, to which the Dutch foreign travel advice still applies the label “necessary travel only”. Well – it was necessary for me! There is no reason to avoid this region nowadays. Large tour groups are assigned escorts according to the Lonely Planet – and indeed we met a tourist convoy of 4x4’s accompanied by armed police. I was with a local driver (who seemed to know everybody) and we were just waved on at the only checkpoint near Lake Qarun.

Cast of the hind limbs of the whales

In the early morning I was picked up at my Cairo hotel with a 4WD jeep. Due to the busy traffic, getting out of (and into) Cairo is quite time-consuming. Once outside the city limits we hardly saw anyone anymore. The road has been completely paved up to the last 32km, but occasionally some sand hills have blown over the road and a 4WD (or just high clearance) is helpful. The final stretch is on a reinforced sand road. My driver found it more fun to drive off-road though. Some 3 hours after our departure we arrived at the Wadi.

This is one of the most modern and best organized attractions in Egypt. There is a demarcated parking space, a café, clean toilets and a brand new museum. All these outbuildings are made in an adobe style so that they fit exactly within the landscape. Entrance costs 40 Egyptian pounds (2 EUR). Only since 1983 has research been done on a large scale and has the importance of these fossils been discovered. In 2005 it became a WHS and since then it has been made accessible to visitors. This has been done with Italian technical and financial support, via a twinning agreement between Wadi Al-Rayan (the national park in which the whale fossils lie) and Italy’s Gran Sasso National Park.

We started our tour at the Fossil and Climate Change museum, only open since 2016. It is small but does its job of explaining the importance of the site well. The largest whale species found on site is the now extinct Basilosaurus isis, which still had small hind legs but they were not strong enough to stand on anymore. In the museum they do have a full skeleton of this species. You can also see fossilized plants and shells. There is even a fossil of a watermelon!

Full whale skeleton

You can only enter the fossil area on foot, via a hiking trail of about 2km length. Fortunately, it was a bit windy the day that I visited - walking through the sand in the burning sun otherwise would be quite a test. I noticed a guide from a Spanish group pointing the start of the trail out to them and immediately returning to the shelter of the café himself. My guide went along, but had little added value on this trip.

From the main trail there are numbered signs pointing to side paths where you can see a fossil or something else of interest. Although there is also a complete skeleton, mainly spines from the whale fossils can be seen. The fossils lie in the open air - we wondered what happens to them when there is a sandstorm or when it rains (if it ever rains here). Probably they are somehow fastened to the soil at the bottom.

When this area was under water and the whales lived here, this valley was a coastal area with mangroves. You can see these plants as well fossilized in the landscape.

Further down the valley, the number of whale fossils decreases but the landscape becomes more and more beautiful. There are strangely eroded hills, like giant mushrooms. We walked almost the entire path, except for the last hill with a mysterious sign 'Exit' - you really have to return the same way though as you came.

Eroded landscape

From Cairo this is a full day trip: I left at 7:30 and was back at the hotel at 6 o'clock. The visit to the valley itself took about 2 hours. The landscape is beautiful and the story behind the whale fossil findings I found intriguing. This side trip is also a nice change from busy Cairo and the many monuments from Egyptian antiquity. On both ways we passed Lake Qarun, part of the TWHS that is up for a separate nomination in 2020. Especially from the western side this huge lake suddenly appears as an oasis in the desert.

Published 17 November 2018

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Blog: WHS #687: Historic Cairo

A lot can be said about Historic Cairo and Cairo in general, but I will focus my review on the mosques of Islamic Cairo. I was in the mood for it: just before this trip I bought the book Mosques. Splendors of Islam and I recently re-visited Istanbul – famous for its exquisite Ottoman mosques - as well. Cairo however might the best place in the world to see the architectural development of mosques: from the Samarran style to the designs favoured by the Fatimids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans.

Ibn Tulun Mosque

Beforehand I had made a list of mosques from the different periods that I wanted to see: Ibn Tulun Mosque (Samarran) + Al Hakim & Al Azhar Mosque (Fatimid) + Sultan Hassan & Aqsunqur Mosques (Mamluk) + Muhammad Ali Pasha (Ottoman). Due to the considerable walking distances between them, I ended up only visiting the ones that I have underlined.

The first of these was the oldest: the Mosque of Ibn Tulun (879). It exemplifies the early tradition of the Arab-plan or hypostyle (“many columns”) mosque, with a spacious courtyard (“to accommodate the large number of worshippers during Friday prayers .. in the warm Middle Eastern and Mediterranean climates”) and a flat roof dominated by a single minaret.

From downtown I first rode 2 stops southwards by metro to Saad Zaghloul station and then - with a map in hand – looked out for this mosque. I immediately walked in the right direction, but it still took me 20 minutes to find it. Nothing is signposted here in Cairo and the mosque is too low to stand out among the surrounding buildings (you can see it very well though from the Citadel looking down).

The Ibn Tulun mosque is known for its spiral-shaped minaret, which has been designed following the example of the minaret of the Samarra Mosque in Iraq. The mosque does not look very much in use anymore: much of it is covered in pigeon droppings. At the entrance you get protective covers for your shoes - probably intended not to contaminate the holy ground with street dirt, but here also very welcome as a hygiene measure. Nevertheless, I was very impressed by its simple but strong architecture.

Al Azhar Mosque

From the 10th century on, the Fatimid Dynasty came into power in Cairo and the city started rivalling Istanbul. The change the Fatimids brought with them was the veneration of their caliph. This lead to public appearances in the form of holy processions and in mosque architecture the innovation of the mosque façade as an important backdrop for sacred rituals.

The Al Azhar mosque is one of the buildings left from the Fatimid heritage in Cairo. It was still built as a hypostyle mosque: I found many students praying and reading under the shaded corridor, while the marble of the open courtyard was being polished and cleaned to perfection. I arrived during prayer time, but that did not matter: I was welcomed anywhere on the premises (after they had given me a robe to wear). This was also the most actively religious of the mosques that I entered on this day. I encountered many Muslims from other countries such as Malaysia / Indonesia and Central Asia praying and probably studying here (it is said to be the oldest still operating university in the world).

In the 13th century, the Mamluks took over Cairo. They were equally ambitious builders as the Fatimids. Their innovations included the integration of charitable institutions and mausolea into their mosque designs. They are also known for their intricate stone masonry. And they replaced the hypostyle structure of the prayer hall with the Persian iwan (with 4 open spaces, 1 on each side of the courtyard).

From this period I visited the Sultan Hassan mosque. This huge mosque lies at the foot of the Citadel. Its portal and courtyard, in the textbook Persian iwan style, are just beautiful. Behind the pulpit lies another room, intended for the tomb of Sultan Hassan himself (but that never happened). Here too, one gets the feeling of being in Persia. The corners of the burial room are covered with muqarnas.

Sultan Hassan Mosque

Finally, the Muhammad Ali Pasha mosque at the Citadel is a pure Ottoman creation. It was modelled after the Yeni Valide Mosque in Istanbul (according to wikipedia its model was the Sultan Ahmed Mosque – but I think it looks more like the Yeni, a suggested by the Mosques. Splendors of Islam book). This is the most visited mosque of Cairo and just as the rest of the Citadel a bit too touristy for my taste.

There are many beautiful, really old buildings to see here in Historic Cairo: you just have to look through the mess. Cairo does not have the grandeur of Istanbul, but it has much more variety in building styles. A full day is necessary already for Islamic Cairo alone: I walked around from half past 8 to half past 4. And then you still have Coptic Cairo left which is also part of this WHS and worth half a day.

Published 10 November 2018

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Blog: WHS #686: the Pyramid Fields

Due to switching to a new employer, I had some unexpected days off on my hands in late October to finish up my unused holiday allowance. Almost immediately I knew that I wanted to spend them at a city trip to Cairo – not too far away but good for 3 quality WHS within 5 days. I started my trip with a long-awaited visit to Memphis and the pyramid fields of Giza and Saqqara. The good thing about this WHS is that it covers the entire history of Egyptian pyramid construction, not just the big and famous pyramids of Giza.

Pyramid of Cheops in Gizeh

My plan for the first day was to take a bus from the Egyptian museum to Giza. There should be 2 bus lines (355 and 357) that ply this route - but where do these buses stop? The surroundings of the museum are a jumble of multi-lane streets, a fly-over and a roundabout. There are many buses but no bus stops and I also did not see the 2 right bus numbers passing by. So I decided to switch to the metro, which turned out to be a lot easier. Metro station Giza is only 6 stops from downtown. From there I boarded a minibus that runs up and down the main street for the final kilometres towards the 'haram' (Arabic for 'pyramids').

This is the site where the ancient Egyptians had perfected their art of building pyramids. Especially the great pyramids of Cheops and Chefren are perfect in shape, huge and entirely of stone. If you have come by car or the tour bus, you can drive from one pyramid to another on an asphalt road. There are also men with horse carriages and camels that would love to show you around. I just walked - you can take short-cuts through the sand and it is easy to do. Only at a given time I was covered in grains of sand, from my hair to my shoes.

Sphinx of possibly Hatsheput, Memphis

The next day I was transported in luxury to Memphis and Saqqara, about 35 kilometers south of Cairo. Memphis was the first capital of Ancient Egypt and remained important for thousands of years. Nowadays a dusty town has been built over it. The few remains left from Memphis have been brought together in an open-air museum. The showpiece of this museum is a more than 10 meter high statue of Ramses II. This is the same Ramses who placed 4 giant statues of himself in front of the temple of Abu Simbel - he quite liked his own appearance. Its upper body and face are still in good condition. The museum also holds a beautiful alabaster sphinx with the head of (probably) Queen Hatshepsut.

A 10 minute drive away we arrived at the desert area of Saqqara, the burial ground of Memphis. Kings had their pyramids built here and also many graves of noblemen and high officials have been found. The eye-catcher here is the step pyramid of Djoser: this is the first pyramid ever built (27th century BC), albeit still in a primitive form. In front of it lies a sand-covered open square, where in ancient times a festival was held to have the king reconfirm his power. It reminded me a bit of Teotihuacan!

Many of the pyramids at Saqqara have collapsed: according to my guide they were built 'low-budget'. The great pyramids costed a lot of effort and money to build, which was often opposed by the general population. The burial chambers under the collapsed pyramids are sometimes still accessible. I entered two of these chambers, including that of the Pharaoh Unas: the long sloping corridor ends in a hallway with a room on both sides. On the right the tomb was placed. Here the walls are covered with hieroglyphics and the image of a starry sky.

Pyramid of Djoser, Saqqara

From the grounds of Saqqara you also have a good view of the necropolis of Dahshur, a few kilometres away. Its bent pyramid and red pyramid are well recognizable on the horizon. The bent pyramid was the first attempt to build a perfect pyramid, only at the top it went a bit awry. That is why King Snofroe tried again with a pyramid next to it: this time with success - the first 'real' pyramid of ancient Egypt was a fact.

Published 3 November 2018

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Blog: WHC 2019: Danube Limes - Arrianis

The Danube Limes was the Roman military border along the Danube. The Romans here used the river as a natural boundary: there was no boundary wall such as for example the Hadrian's Wall in northern England. This 'border' consisted of a series of defense towers, auxiliary forts and larger legionary fortresses.

The Danube Limes is nominated to become a WHS in 2019. It will be an additional site to the existing Frontiers of the Roman Empire WHS, not an extension of it. The nomination includes no fewer than 164 locations in Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. And for 2021 an extension into Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Croatia is already scheduled. The rationale behind this is explained as: "Unlike the Roman monuments already inscribed, the ... constructions are evidence from the edges of the Empires and reflect the adoption of Roman culture by its subject peoples."

Lay-out of a Roman castellum or small army camp

From the sparse remains that are left of this border, I visited those in the Austrian town of Klosterneuburg. It lies half an hour drive from the airport of Vienna and thus was a nice ending of my WHS weekend in Czechia. Approaching in my rented Opel Corsa, my navigation app suddenly showed a 'ferry crossing'. Klosterneuburg lies on the 'other side' of the Danube and there is no bridge in the area. So I reluctantly took the third spot of four that the car ferry can transport - at least it gave me a feel for the width of the Danube again.

The Roman remains are located under the Klosterneuburg monastery. That monastery is located on a prominent hill in the city center, so it cannot be overlooked. I dropped my car off in a public parking and hurried to the entrance: I knew that there would be special guided tours of the Roman heritage of the monastery at 14:30 and 16:00. Exactly at 14.30 I was at the ticket counter, where I bought a ticket for 9 EUR and immediately joined the tour that had just begun.

We first walked outside of the huge monastery building to the entrance of what looked like a cellar. There is nothing left on the surface from Roman times. However, excavations have shown that the Roman camp of Arrianis (as its name probably was) was located on exactly the same grounds as the monastery. The Danube then flowed some 2 kilometers closer than is currently the case.

Roman tombstones

From March to November this year, as part of an exhibition, the Roman excavations under the cloister are also open to visitors - albeit by guided tour only. Here the guide started her explanations at a map of the former army camp. These camps or fortresses were all built according to the same model. Arrianis was not really an important camp, but fulfilled its role in border control against the barbarians on the other side of the Danube.

A further room has been turned into a lapidarium (collection of stone objects). Here you can see gravestones that were already reused by the Romans to strengthen a well. The deceased are depicted on the stones; remarkably often these are Roman men with local, Celtic women. Around the corner of the lapidarium is a unique find in a display case: a Roman military diploma. 2 fragile pieces of bronze served as a kind of identification for 'foreign' soldiers in the auxiliary troops, who had obtained Roman civil rights after 25 years of loyal service. These objects - the gravestones and the diploma - really make clear that this was a Romanized area still with many local connections and far away from Rome.

Remains of under-floor heating from Roman times

The very last space that we entered during the tour even was a few meters further down. We were now right at the foundations of the monastery. Here excavations from different periods can be seen, including underfloor heating from Roman times. All looked like stone walls to me, but fortunately signs have been added to explain from which period the particular layer of findings stems!

Published 31 October 2018

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Blog: WHS #685: Valtice

What is the ‘worst’ WHS? According to the ranking of most popular sites on this website, Kuk in PNG is currently rated the lowest among our community members - although it has only 1 vote and few have been there at all. Among the more frequently visited ones, Battir and Srebarna stand out negatively. Well – regarding the WHS visited by me I have just reached an all-time low: I gave Lednice-Valtice Cultural Landscape a 3 out of 10, which in my personal conversion table translates to 1 star. Even less than the little inspiring Srebarna where I was a month ago….

Entrance to Valtice castle

Last Sunday I spent an hour at the castle and garden of Valtice. I did so after having driven up from Lednice right across the cultural landscape that connects these two estates / towns, where the Liechtenstein family united baroque architecture with English landscape architecture. That it was a ‘bad’ WHS visit for me shows in several ways:

The number of photos: I took 23 in total of Valtice, of which 9 made it into my Flickr album which I use as a back-up for the photos that I like to keep. At Valtice there is just little that captures your eye. My personal record at the other end of the spectrum by the way is for Machu Picchu, where I took over 400 photos in a single visit!

I cannot see its OUV: Lednice-Valtice’s OUV statement is full of hollow phrases, such as “bringing together in harmony cultural monuments from successive periods” and “served as a model throughout the Danube region” (seems regional to me). In the end it is a designed landscape by an aristocratic family from the 18th century. The same century already gave us the much grander Potsdam, Drottningholm and Caserta for example!

The visitor experience: a number of landscape elements that might have been of interest were closed, either for an undisclosed period of time or temporarily for the winter season. These include follies such as a grotto (no longer accessible), a frog cellar (closed with a lock), the colonnade (no access in winter season?) and the St. Hubertus Chapel (requires a 5km walk and who knows what you will find at the end of that?). Both Lednice and Valtice castles are right in the middle of a town and parking is a nightmare too. Valtice castle looks tired and the hotel in one of its wings is under scaffolding at the moment.

Valtice garden

In its defence it must be said that Valtice was the 3rd Czech castle-garden WHS that I visited in a row, so maybe if I had seen this one first it would have been a better experience (although Litomysl for me certainly stands out because of its originality). There are also bike trails that cross the cultural landscape between Lednice and Valtice, which can be a nice way of experiencing this area. Or maybe Lednice is more interesting than Valtice….

Published 27 October 2018

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Blog: WHS #684: Kromeriz

During my ‘Czech 3 castle WHS weekend’ I stayed overnight in Kromeriz. It lies about half-way between Litomysl and Lednice/Valtice, and probably is the nicest of these towns. The hotel La Fresca and its restaurant are warmly recommended anyway. Its menu was only written in the Czech language, probably a sign that not too many foreign tourists stay for the evening and night. My reason for being here of course was the Gardens and Castle in Kroměříž, which have played an important role in the development of the baroque palace and garden design in Central Europe.

Autumn colours in the Castle Garden

The WHS consists of 2 locations: the Castle and its garden (1) and the Pleasure Garden (a.k.a. Flower Garden) (2). Both are walkable from the city square. The locations are well-signposted and even connected to each other via a route with partial WH logo’s incorporated in the pavement at frequent intervals. I knew beforehand that the castle probably wouldn’t be worth entering (although it houses “a splendid art collection”), so I just focused on both gardens during my 1.5 hour visit on an early Sunday morning.

The garden at the castle opens its gates already at 7 o'clock. So after breakfast I first went to have a look at that one. It is a landscape park in English style - so 'just' a park that you see in so many places in Europe. It has hiking paths, benches, ponds, a bridge. There are also peacocks and a kind of petting zoo. I encountered a black rabbit on one of the paths that had probably escaped from it. Entrance is free here. It is nice enough for a stroll, especially with the autumn colours setting in.

Colonnade

The Pleasure Garden lies some 15 minutes away, on the other side of the square in a residential neighbourhood. It opens at 9 am and a 80 CZK (3.10 EUR) entrance fee is charged. This is actually the only element of this world heritage that has something special. It apparently is a rare well-preserved garden from the 17th century, designed in the Italian garden style and still intact in its original baroque design. The eye-catcher is the 244-meter-long archway, with a statue in each niche and a bust on each arch.

The garden itself consists of many straight paths that all end up at the central Rotunda. Furthermore, there are many creatively cut hedges. It must be a hell of a job to keep this maintained, but it looks neat. There’s also a ‘Dutch garden’ – I had never heard of the specific type (gardening is not really a subject of interest to me), but it is a small rectangular garden space with flowers planted in it!

Passageway in the Pleasure Garden

This is the 8th review of the Gardens and Castle of Kromeriz on this website in over 12 years and I can not think of any new angle of approach in describing its values or visiting experience. Everything that can be told about it has already been written down. The nomination file goes into great detail about the castle’s art collection, library, numismatic collection – most of it moveable objects which shouldn’t be rewarded in a WHS. This should be about the garden(s), but I’d rather recommend the originals in Italy.

Published 24 October 2018

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Responses to WHS #684: Kromeriz
Solivagant (25 October 2018)

“There’s also a ‘Dutch garden’ – I had never heard of the specific type (gardening is not really a subject of interest to me), but it is a small rectangular garden space with flowers planted in it!”
As is often the case when one delves into a subject, it soon raises issues and inconsistencies!!
A “Dutch Garden”? Well surely it is all about bulbs, tulips etc!!! Indeed, this 2014 article about Kromeritz from the Japan Times states “Dutch Garden. Growing bulbs - called “Dutch” flowers - was a prestigious activity among the upper class in the 16th and 17th centuries. These spring-blooming flower beds have been restored with 20,000 bulbs of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and Kaiser’s crown (or crown imperials). The Dutch Garden also includes a fountain with the original statue of a water god, and is considered one of the Flower Garden’s most authentic spots.”
Although all this might please tourists visiting Kromeriz in Spring and expecting to see tulips in a “Dutch Garden”, it is, as far as I can discover, not what the garden would have really been about. The pleasure gardens were constructed mainly 1665-75 and the height of “Tulip mania” in the Netherlands had occurred before then (c1637) but the references I can discover about the phrase “Dutch Garden” hardly mention the tulip!! My photos of the information boards in the Kromeriz museum describe the “Dutch garden” without mentioning those plants – it was all about walls, water and a statue!
The magazine “Garden History” produced an article titled “Who knows what a Dutch Garden is?” (https://www.jstor.org/stable/1587248?read-now=1&googleloggedin=true&seq=2#page_scan_tab_contents ). It concentrates far more on the design and lay out than on flowers. “High hedges and walls, ponds or canals. Tight arrangement of spaces and the use of vistas, both consistent with the long and thin shapes of land parcels in NL”
Wiki says “The Dutch garden is distinguished by its dense atmosphere and efficient use of space” and “In England, Dutch garden was the description given to a particular type of rectangular garden space, often enclosed within hedges or walls ……. This space would be laid out in a highly cultivated and geometrical, often symmetrical, fashion, shaped by dense plantings of highly coloured flowers, and edged with box or other dense and clipped shrubs, or low walls (sometimes in geometrical patterns), and sometimes, also, with areas of artificial water, with fountains and water butts, which were also laid out in symmetrical arrangements. The flower beds and areas of water would be intersected by geometrical path patterns, to make it possible to walk around the garden without damaging any of its features”.


Blog: WHS #683: Litomysl Castle

Litomysl Castle was one of the three castles of southeast Czechia that were still on my to do list. I decided to tackle all of them (Litomysl, Kromeriz and Lednice/Valtice) during one fast paced weekend break. Early Saturday morning I flew to Vienna, a more convenient hub than Prague for this scope. There I rented a car and drove for 3 hours until I arrived in Litomysl. Not all rental companies allow you to take the car from Austria into Czechia (Sixt does). And you have to be aware to buy a Czech toll vignette at a petrol station after crossing the border. Otherwise it’s all straightforward.

Arcade castle

Thanks to its ca. 8,000 sgraffito ‘bricks’ that fully cover its exterior, this Castle strongly stands out amidst its baroque surroundings. It is located above the town center on Castle Hill and surrounded by a French formal garden, the English style castle garden, the brewery, riding hall, stables and carriage house – which all belong to the core zone too.

I did not plan to take castle tours at all 3 castles of this weekend, but for Litomysl I thought it could be worth it because its tour includes a visit to the 18th century theatre. Between April and October there are regular tours scheduled. At the ticket office I was put on the list for the 2 pm tour. So I had over an hour to spare, which I spent in the city center (‘dead’ on a Saturday afternoon, just as I experienced in Zatec earlier this year) and in the cheerful coffee shop that is located in the castle’s former carriage house.

Stage of the theatre

Some 30 people turned up for the tour: all Czech, 95% female. The tours are only conducted in Czech. I was given a book with explanations in English and could tag along. Before I knew it we were already in the theatre, that’s where the tour starts with a long explanation of the castle’s history and the theatre. It’s a very intimate theatre where today’s 30 visitors just fitted in the regular seating for guests – the nobility used to sit in the balconies overhead. The Czech guide obviously told much more than was in my book, so I just stared at the Italian inspired landscape scenes painted on the stage screens. It’s a pity that we could not see the stage machinery in action

Afterwards we went on to the first floor, which has the best views of the courtyard with 3 rows of arcades that characterizes this building. From there we entered a series of palatial rooms. They have original wooden floors but no shoe covers are required – there’s a red carpet that you walk on. The whole building isn’t that large, so we only visited some 8 rooms furnished with rococo furniture, colourful painted wallpaper and the likes. The final room of the tour is the Horse Rider’s Anteroom: the Waldstein-Wartenberg family that owned this castle in the 18th century loved their horses and bred a special race of them at Kladruby (of the stud farm TWHS). Huge paintings of these different coloured horses adorn this room.

Chimney with sgrafitto

This WHS belongs to a myriad of connections that are so common in European palaces – I added sun dial (there are 2 of them), rococo (reading room in the interior), library (in the 17th century it held 4,000 books), neo-classical (theatre), baroque (sundials and 18th century modifications of the interior), French formal garden, English landscape garden. I discovered a new connection too: Litomysl is part of the European Route of Historic Theatres. This covers lots of theatres and opera houses in different European regions, including Cesky Krumlov Castle Theatre, Graz Opera House, Margravial Opera House, New Palace Theater in Potsdam and the Teatro Garcia de Resende in Evora.

Published 21 October 2018

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